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How Fears, Anxieties or Phobias Could Be Developed Through Classical Conditioning

Updated on March 10, 2013
Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) Russian physiologist who developed a model through experimentation and theory of classical conditioning.
Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) Russian physiologist who developed a model through experimentation and theory of classical conditioning.

What Is Classical Conditioning?

Pavlovian conditioning is a term that is associated with classical conditioning. The model used for learning about conditioned behaviors is attributed to Ivan Pavlov and many of us who have sat through a psychology class learned about Pavlov's experiment involving dogs and the use of tools to stimulate learning.

We are "classically conditioned" after we have learned to respond to certain stimulus with reactions like fear, anxiety or excitement. The four components involved with classical conditioning demonstrated by Pavlov include (1) unconditioned stimulus; (2) conditioned stimulus; (3) unconditioned response; and (4) conditioned response.

Example of Unconditioned Stimulus

You just walk into a friend's kitchen and you haven't had anything to eat since breakfast. Let's say you're going to go eat steak and as soon as you walk into the kitchen, the smell alone creates an automatic response that makes you really hungry. The smell of the food is an unconditioned stimulus.

Example of Unconditioned Response

When you naturally respond in a certain manner to an unconditioned stimulus, this is an unconditioned response. The effect of smelling the steak being prepared in the kitchen stirs more hunger. That sense or feeling of hunger is the unconditioned response.

Example of Conditioned Stimulus and Conditioned Response

A conditioned stimulus has an association with the unconditioned stimulus and will result in a conditioned response. Let's say that at the time you walked into your kitchen, you had your kitchen window open and the sound of your wind chimes could be heard. While we know there is no relationship between a wind chimes and smelling the steak being cooked, if you heard over and over the sound of the wind chimes at the same time as smelling the food, in time, the sound of the wind chimes would soon trigger a conditioned response. The wind chimes, in themselves, would be the conditioned stimulus. The conditioned response would be the sense of hunger felt when you heard the wind chimes.

Our Learning Patterns

In regard to anxiety, I consider smoking, as in how people are trained to have a cigarette when consuming alcohol. Something triggers the brain to want to light a cigarette as soon as your drink arrives.

I consider how I was trained throughout school in my youth to exit a classroom at the sound of a bell. I have always been afraid of water to some extent, and the fear was strengthened when I was pushed into a swimming pool by a high school teacher who informed me it was the only way I would learn how to swim. The effect of the push in the water as well as hearing about any high school gym instructor renders an unconditioned response.

Finally, I arrive at one single event I believe to be a good example, and which now causes me to formulate opinions as well as questions about how this one single event may be a cause to ascertain mild forms of anxiety which ultimately created a conditioned response. Here's a hint--what if you do not like liver and onions, but you were forced to eat it anyway?

Example of Classical Conditioning

To establish what I believe to be an example of classical conditioning, let me first give some history of what I feel constitutes the unconditioned stimulus as well as the unconditioned response. When I was a toddler, my mother used to feed me grilled cheese sandwiches. She would indicate I used to like them. However, my recollection was that I never liked cheese, and therefore, I used to peel away the buttered portions of the bread and consume the part of the sandwich that had no contact with the cheese. Thereafter, up until the fourth grade, I have no recollection of ever eating cheese, or being presented with cheese. I can only assume I made my message loud and clear that I did not wish to consume a product that I deemed disgusting. When I even hear the word, "cheese," I immediately react by recalling the odor of strong cheeses and how awful they would taste. I also consider other products to fit into this category such as sour cream and cream cheese. Oddly enough, I do like mozzarella and grated Parmesan cheeses. Why is that? I think it's because they are overshadowed by spicy sauces. I believe that my strong dislike for cheese is a natural stimulus or unconditioned stimulus.

I think the taste and odor of all other cheeses serve as the stimulus that would invoke me to turn up my nose and give a negative response to anyone who wanted to share their cheese coated meal with me. Unfortunately, I have missed a lot of dishes that were served with cheese. My being repulsed of the taste and odor always, in my mind, was an unconditioned response.

When I was in the fourth grade, there was an episode at my lunch table involving myself and my fourth grade teacher. I always felt she was likeable up until the episode. I will probably always remember her name as well as the event every time I smell macaroni and cheese which I still avoid smelling as it clearly makes my senses uneasy as well as impatient if I ever have to prepare it for somebody who loves it. I literally try to refrain from inhaling its aroma.

My fourth grade experience involved a main course for lunch of macaroni and cheese. Of course, I did not want to eat it because of my dislike for cheese, but I did eat everything else. My teacher told me I had to eat it. I, being the giggle box I was, starting giggling and said I could not eat it because I didn't like cheese. She initially smiled in return, but only followed that smile by telling me I couldn't leave the lunch table until I consumed the main course. I was no longer laughing. I remember pleading with her and to this day, I do not understand why she made me eat the nasty stuff. I put bites in my mouth and swallowed them whole with my milk. I feel this incident as a result of the actions of my teacher will serve as the neutral stimulus, or conditioned stimulus which invoked a response.

The taste and odor of cheese which I previously found offensive before the incident, and coupled with the actions of my teacher, have affected me all my life. My dislike for cheese products certainly was exaggerated after the incident. Though my dislike for cheese was originally an unconditioned response derived from an unconditioned stimulus, my mannerisms towards cheese now are invoked because of the teacher's actions (conditioned stimulus), rather than just from the smell and taste (unconditioned stimulus). This was a single event which caused me to learn how to react to the smell of cheeses, especially macaroni and cheese, to a greater sense.

My fourth grade teacher created a situation wherein I was humiliated and intimidated, thus due to her actions which I still do not understand, the occurrence stirs up a behavior in me that still drives me away from the odor of cheeses.

I always make comment in regard to my dislike for cheeses. I love Mexican food and when I ask for an item off a menu, I always say please leave off the cheese as if I'm afraid they will forget and trust me, many times in my life it either went unnoted or overlooked because the person taking the order, or the cook, did not listen. I have grown up with comments like, "Gee, Cathy, it's un-American to hate cheese," and this comment doesn't bother me as much as having had to force feed myself with something I detested.

I believe the above-described situation fits the category of conditioned emotional responses as well. Though I believe I never liked cheese, it is interesting to note that I cannot recall specifically, except for the only memory of partially eating a grilled cheese sandwich, much of a strong liking or disliking of cheese from the time I was a toddler up until the fourth grade incident. I simply assume I must never have liked it. When I did have to consume the macaroni and cheese, I wondered if that event created a complete unwillingness to try other dairy products which I found similar to cheese in way of odor or taste.

I now explain this dislike to others by comparison. For example, I ask them if they like liver and onions and if they scoff, I indicate that I do like it and maybe they can use that comparison to understand why I don't like cheese.

In Robert Sternberg's book, In Search of the Human Mind (1995), he writes about the experimentation of John Garcia and Robert Koelling where it states, "Conditioning could occur after only a single learning trial." Sternberg, an American psychologist and psychometrician, is currently serving as Provost at the Oklahoma State University.


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  • ytsenoh profile image

    Cathy 4 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

    Thanks much for the read and your kind comment. Good subject to write about! Have a great week!

  • bizarrett81 profile image

    bizarrett81 4 years ago from Maine

    Ah, Pavlov's Dog! Great hub! I just wrote a paper about this a few weeks for my psychology class. Very interesting topic... Voted up!

  • ytsenoh profile image

    Cathy 4 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

    ryan, thanks for the read and your comment. Have a good day!

  • ryanjhoe profile image

    ryanjhoe 4 years ago from Somewhere over the rainbow

    I got panic attacks a few weeks ago and it's horrible experience I ever got. I didn't know I can got that such kind of anxiety. Before I got panick attacks, I drink coffee intense for like 10 days and lack of sleep too. Some conditions and habit indeed affect us in certain ways. Anyway, thanks for sharing!

  • ytsenoh profile image

    Cathy 6 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

    In answer to your question, maybe. Thank you for your comment and for stopping by.

  • colpolbear profile image

    colpolbear 6 years ago from Pennsylvania

    Interesting. Very, very interesting. Every time I hear the word conditioning, I think back to reading "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley. Would you consider that to be a conditioned response to the stimuli of having read the book? I like this concept.